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Space Shuttle Columbia

Mock shuttle foam test causes 'significant' damage

Insulating foam falls off the shuttle's external tank January 16.
Insulating foam falls off the shuttle's external tank January 16.

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HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- A piece of foam shot at the leading edge of a model shuttle wing Thursday cut a 22-inch gap in the surface and knocked loose a seal -- a finding termed "significant" by a Columbia Accident Investigation Board official.

The test is the first of several that investigators probing the space shuttle Columbia disaster plan to conduct to try to determine what caused the craft to break up February 1, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

One of the leading theories into the accident has been that a piece of foam insulation that hit Columbia's wing during liftoff damaged insulation tiles or the leading edge of the wing, eventually leading to the shuttle's disintegration during re-entry.

In Thursday's test, a foam piece weighing just 1.67 pounds was fired at 531 mph at the mock wing, which was made of fiberglass -- a material 2.5 times stronger than the reinforced carbon carbon (RCC) used on Columbia's wing.

The foam left a 22-inch opening on the wing, ranging in thickness from that of a dime to more than a quarter inch. It also knocked loose a T-seal, which helps protect the wing.

Air Force Lt. Col. Woody Woodyard, a spokesman for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said the test result was important, although he said it's too soon to draw any conclusions.

"It was significant in that it shifted one of the T-seals upon impact," he said. "There was some significant effect."

Woodyard added: "We're not drawing any conclusions from it."

He said similar tests are to be conducted in the coming weeks as investigators continue "trying to gather data to draw conclusions."

"This is just the first step in the process," he said.

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